What's In Your Wunderkammer? Curating Your Collection - Part 2
Curious about the history of the wunderkammer and theories on its popular resurgence? Consider reading What’s in Your Wunderkammer? — Part 1.
Developing Your Collection
In centuries prior, a collection was usually divided into four categories with Latin taxonomy. Under any other circumstance, I wouldn’t bother mentioning them. However, since this is an introductory series to curiosity cabinets and there are so many preconceived ideas about what a curiosity collection might or should look like, it’s worth giving examples of just how vast the spectrum can be. It may even inspire you on your journey.
Four categories of curiosities:
Naturalia — products from nature and various rare creatures with a particular interest in monsters (a Jackalope is a modern example).
Artificialia — artificial objects created or modified by humans, antiques, works of art.
Exotica — exotic objects, plants or animals collected from distant places.
Scientifica — the testaments of man’s ability to dominate nature such as astrolabes, clocks, automatons, and scientific instruments.
Some collectors already know that they want to focus solely on a specific subset of curiosities, while others want whatever happens to capture their fancy.
Perhaps you live a particular lifestyle and don’t want to collect anything that will compromise your values. Whatever your situation, there are so many amazing options available to you.
Remember, curiosity cabinets are truly meant to be as unique as their owner.
Choosing Your Cabinet
The size of the cabinet all depends on your goal for your collection. How large do you want your collection to be and how much display space are the individual items going to need? Some people are content with small collections that require very little physical space (and they certainly don’t want their oddities spread throughout the house). Others have dreams of amassing a house sized collection, and due to their size, some items need to be interspersed throughout the house.
A great example of a starter curiosity cabinet is a simple wall shelf or bookcase. There are thousands of options available online, and if you want something particularly unique, estate sales, flea markets, and thrift stores are great places to look.
Psst… Where Do You Get The Weird Stuff?
It is common knowledge that you can’t go to Target and buy a two-headed duckling. So where do you get one of those suckers, ’cause they’re cute, dammit, and ever since you became aware of their existence you wanted one all for yourself.
Oddities on Etsy
You would be surprised just how much crazy weird s#%t is for sale on Etsy. If you can dream it up, someone is probably selling it. By far, Etsy is the number one destination for buying oddities. Wet specimens, bone dice, pinned insects, animal skulls, antique medical instruments, creepy dolls, religious paraphernalia, the occult… even those two-headed ducklings are available, in a variety of colors.
Brick and mortar curiosity shops
If there isn’t a curiosity shop in your immediate vicinity, nowadays nearly every major metropolitan city has one. (That is how popular curiosity cabinets have become.) When planning your next day trip to the big city, do an online search, find where the curiosity shop is located and add it to your itinerary. While you can order items from these stores through their website, it really is worth it to go in person. There are always far more products in store than are ever featured online, and you want to be able to physically inspect an item before you buy it, especially if there are multiple versions of the same specimen. No two are ever alike, and you should choose the specimen you like the most.
Buying everything for your curiosity cabinet seems a bit inauthentic. Not to worry. You can learn to press and preserve your own herbarium, pin insects, taxidermy a mouse, and even preserve your own wet specimens from the comfort of your home. Youtube (a digital wunderkammer!) is the best resource for easy to follow instructional videos.
If you’d rather learn in a group setting, curiosity shops often host classes that range anywhere from 4 hours to full day classes that span multiple weeks, depending on the subject matter. There may also be private instructors in you area that host workshops on a regular basis.
Keep Local Laws in Mind
Collectors tend to run into trouble when it comes to buying anything that involves animals or animal parts (i.e. taxidermy, skulls, bones, wet specimens). This includes mammals, birds of prey, fish, reptiles, and non-native species.
It’s safe to say you aren’t going to find black market items at your local curiosity shop. These are professional small businesses whose owners are well versed in local and international laws about what is legal to buy and sell in their area. By my experience, they also genuinely care about their reputation and are passionate about education, conservation, and ethical sourcing.
There are so many wonderful legal curiosities out there; really, most would make show stopping additions to anyone’s collection. If you’re dead set on getting your hands on something illegal because it is particularly rare, endangered, or culturally taboo, I strongly advise you stop what you’re doing and find something legal that captures your imagination instead.
Remember, if you’re ever unsure whether an item of interest is legal to purchase or own, a simple internet search will often provide the answer. If you’re still unsure, you can always research your local laws or contact your state/territory wildlife authority.
We will never curtail our desire to collect, document, and classify the world around us. We love to own things that are one of a kind and we use these objects to define who we are.
Curiosity cabinets aren’t merely repositories for all the weird stuff we’ve encountered in the world but testament of a life lived.
Building a collection over your lifetime allows you to explore new ideas, interact with the natural sciences, understand history, enjoy inventions and appreciate art, so that by the end of it all, you don’t have a mere cabinet of curious things but a rich collection of stories.